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Last year, more than 100 million people vacationed in the Sunshine State, according to Visit Florida. But while we’re all vacationing in Florida, where in Florida do actual Floridians vacation? Sure, plenty of locals have Disney passes. But we also enjoy camping, gallery-hopping and under-the-radar beaches. When you’re ready to do Florida like a local, head to one of these low-key destinations.

RELATED: 7 secluded Florida islands… and how to access them

Anna Maria Island | Photo: Nick Ledford/Flickr

Anna Maria Island

Flip-flops are the footwear of choice on this barrier island about 20 miles north of Sarasota. For an overview of the scene, ride the free Manatee County Area Transit trolley to get around the island, then get off at Pine Avenue to stretch your legs and browse the colorful art galleries and boutiques. Grab a meal overlooking the Gulf of Mexico (the aptly named Waterfront Restaurant is popular, as is Ginny’s and Jane E’s Cafe and Coastal Store), the stop for a photo op at the Old City Jail before grabbing a spot on the soft white sand to watch the sunset over Bradenton Beach.


Islamorada | Photo: Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau


Key West gets all the shine, but if whooping it up on Duval Street isn’t your style, head for this Upper Keys destination that’s beloved by South Florida vacationers. Swim with dolphins at the mom-and-pop marine park Theater of the Sea, buy a bucket of fish to feed the tarpon at Robbie’s Marina and picnic on Anne’s Beach. Best of all, Islamorada is located only about 80 miles from Miami, making it ideal for a quick getaway.


Dixie Lake at Louisa State Park | Photo: Peter and Michelle S/Flickr

Lake Louisa State Park

This Central Florida park actually contains three lakes, so if you’re into canoeing, kayaking, paddleboarding and fishing, look no further. Back on dry land, bike on the paved or unpaved trails before settling into your campsite or furnished glamping cabin. And while there are no costumes at this Central Florida attraction (just 15 miles from Disney World!), you’ll find plenty of charming characters in the form of deer, gopher tortoises, bald eagles and other wildlife.

Fort De Soto Park | Photo: Pinellas County/Flickr

Fort De Soto Park

Five interconnected islands make up this Pinellas County park near Tampa–St. Pete. It’s prized for its unspoiled beaches, mangrove-covered canoe trails, dog-friendly shores, kid-friendly playgrounds and paved bike trails. Explore the fort that’s been there since the Spanish-American War, and for even more remote relaxation, make a reservation for the ferry to Egmont Key or Shell Key. Tent camping is available, and if you feel like coming out of seclusion, head about 15 miles north to downtown St. Petersburg for restaurants, museums and art galleries galore.

Carrabelle, Florida | Photo: Wikimedia

Tate’s Hell State Forest

If your idea of heaven includes sand pines, woodpeckers and the occasional Florida black bear, then head for this park located about 90 miles southeast of Panama City Beach in Carrabelle. The area gets its name from the legend of Cebe Tate, a 19th-century farmer who spent a week lost in the swamp. These days, you’ll find the conditions perfectly hospitable if you enjoy hiking, fishing and canoeing. Trek through the coastal scrub of High Bluff Hiking Trail, stroll the Ralph G. Kendrick Boardwalk and take in a view of the dwarf cypress trees from the observation deck before pitching your tent at one of the park’s primitive campsites.

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Captiva Island | Photo: dconvertini/Flickr

Sanibel and Captiva

The secret might be getting out on this one but Florida natives still love these sister islands. It’s fitting that the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum (yup, that’s a thing) is located on Sanibel Island, whose curved shape easily scoops up seashells from the Gulf of Mexico. Along with its sister island, Captiva, this barrier island off the coast of Fort Myers is one of the best places in the country to collect shells. Pick up conchs on Bowman’s Beach, spot rare birds in the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge or kayak through the Great Calusa Blueway. If you’re into fishing, bring your cleaned, filet fish to the Lazy Flamingo; for $10.99 per 10 ounces, the restaurant will cook your catch and serve it with sides.

Marco Island | Photo Ines-Hegedus Garcia/Flickr

Marco Island

Can’t decide between glitzy Naples and the excitement of the Everglades? Get the best of both worlds when you stay on this hybrid resort town and fishing village that’s about a 30-minute drive from either. Spend the morning on an Everglades airboat tour, do some gallery-hopping in Naples on Fifth Avenue and be back to your hotel in time for a much-needed massage.

Apalachicola River | Photo: patchattack/Flickr


What was once a 19th-century shipping mecca is now a charming town 75 miles southwest of Tallahassee whose tree-lined streets and historic homes set the backdrop for a relaxing getaway. Apalach, as the cool kids call it, harvests more than 90 percent of Florida’s oysters and 10 percent of the nationwide supply, so eat your way through town between stops at the antebellum Orman House Historic State Park and the historic Dixie Theatre. To work it off, head across the Big Bend Scenic Byway Coastal Trail to climb the St. George Island Lighthouse.

Cedar Key | Photo: Peter G/Flickr

Cedar Key

Far from the roar of the Florida Gators football crowds is this Old Florida community about 60 miles west of Gainesville on the Gulf coast. The fishing village-turned-arts-enclave is treasured for its slower pace, so get in step. Grab an ice cream cone, browse the kitschy shops and revel in the absence of chain stores.

Cocoa Beach | Photo: Rusty Clark/Flickr

Cocoa Beach

You’ve probably heard of this popular beach, with its bustling pier, gnarly waves and massive, original Ron Jon Surf Shop. So yeah, tourists go here. But locals like it, too: Just 60 miles east of Orlando and 20 miles south of the Kennedy Space Center, Cocoa is one of the closest beaches for Central Floridians to play a game of volleyball, sip a cocktail and people watch. If you’re looking to schedule a beach day into your theme park vacation, head to this stretch of Atlantic shoreline where tourists and locals coexist.

Tagged: Florida

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Dalia Colon

Dalia Colon

Dalia is a multimedia journalist in Tampa and the Smart Travel Insider for VISIT FLORIDA. Follow her on Twitter @daliacolon.

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